It is always reassuring to see experts make a slip in their own area of expertise. Last night a friend lent me a very interesting book about language, called Planet Word. It discusses many subjects relevant to this blog, including the different ways in which people around the world say much the same thing, and the resulting possibilities for confusion.
I started reading it while drinking my tea this morning. I thought I must still have been half asleep when I read this sentence (p. 158): “We’re in a call centre in Newcastle, one of the boom industries of the twenty-first century.” My first thought was that I had no idea Newcastle was an industry, much less a booming one. Newcastle had always been represented to me by atlases, signs on the A1, people who follow football and drinkers of Brown Ale as a place, a location, a city. There are many words which describe a large agglomeration of people in an urban setting, but “industry” is not one of them.
Then I realised that the author, one J.P. Davidson, had made a mistake which is common to many non-native speakers of English. He had ignored the importance of word order in a language which, because it does not, like Latin or Russian, have cases, can be confusing if adjectival clauses are put next to nouns which they are not qualifying. Mr Davidson would have been better to have written: “We are in Newcastle, in a call centre, which is one of the boom industries…”
After that, I’d better pay Mr Davidson a fulsome compliment or he will soon be scouring this blog for mistakes—which he will surely find. No-one is perfect, not even a Moscow blogger with a pint of tea at his elbow. Planet Word is a very interesting book, especially for people who want to learn to use English in the way the English-speaking world uses the language—as opposed to the way it is taught in language schools and course books. It discusses many other languages, but is written entirely in English—which is a relief to me as I can therefore understand all the jokes.
However, some of those quoted in this very enjoyable book—notice that compliment too, Mr Davidson?—could be understood in any language. Let us consider the word “fart”.
“In his Brief Lives, the seventeenth century diarist John Aubrey recounts the story of Edward de Vere and his unfortunate deep bow to the Queen [Elizabeth I]: ‘This Earl of Oxford making his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travel, seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, “My Lord, I had forgot the Fart”.’”
Clearly she had not, or she would have forgotten to mention it. To forget means to fail to remember. She probably meant that seven years’ voluntary exile was enough by way of apology for an involuntary but non-lethal act, and that she had therefore “forgiven” the fart. That is a different thing altogether. After about seven thousand years (by the Orthodox calendar) we have, in a gender-neutral society, forgiven the Devil for feeding apples to Eve. But we have not forgotten.